This summer, I had the privilege of photographing an inspiring, young female entrepreneur. Ten years ago, Sara Hannig Nour was a new arrival to Egypt from Switzerland. A vegetarian, and a healthy lifestyle enthusiast, she scoured Cairo’s markets for fresh, locally-grown, organic produce to use in her cooking – in vain. Sara learned that Egypt had an overenthusiastic pesticide habit (several countries had banned the import of Egyptian produce based on pesticide residue levels) and she realised that scepticism about organic food was widespread.
Instead of giving up, Sara decided to take matters into her own hands. In the years that followed, she slowly but surely overcame considerable obstacles to build a prize-winning, flagship, organic food business – her step towards making the world a better place.
In the beginning, there were cucumbers
It took time and determination before Sara could return to the market – as a seller. She began a Masters in Organic Agriculture at Cairo University and set to work preparing a plot of land reclaimed from the desert, enriching the soil and protecting it from the harsh climate. Her first successful harvest was a crop of cucumbers, and when she brought them to a farmer’s market, they sold out before her eyes. By 2014, Sara’s Organic Food was launched – the country’s first farm-to-table, organic food service. Organic certification was granted by the European Council for Organic Agriculture – a rare validation in Egypt.
“Real women with their feet on the Earth“
Today with a team of 97, Sara’s company delivers weekly fruit and vegetable baskets across Egypt. Surely one of the only female business leaders in the country’s agricultural sector (not to mention being exceptionally, un-missably blonde), Sara is something of a one-off. She believes deeply in caring for the planet, healthy living and fair trade. The company’s food production techniques are a blend of traditional Egyptian farming wisdom and contemporary organic agricultural methods, smoothed along with Swiss values of quality and thoroughness. This rather unique mix brought Sarah to the attention of global luxury brand, Cartier and its ‘Women’s Initiative‘.
The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, in Cartier’s own words, hunt out “real women with real projects, who have their feet on the Earth, but with big dreams“. In 2017, Sara had the honour of winning first prize for the Middle East & North Africa region, picked from hundreds of candidates.
Sara commissioned me this year as photographer to take her portrait for marketing and publicity purposes. Anyone who can afford premium produce and is looking for inspiration to eat more vegetables, or is doubting the benefits of organic food, couldn’t find a face and figure like Sara’s discouraging. I could see how she must have been a dream winner for Cartier’s PR.
A woman in a man’s world, a lone organic voice making herself heard amid a pro-pesticide chorus… yet if I’d expected Sara to have a strident, vocal personality, I was to be surprised. She oozed unruffled Swissness, with its inherent sense of diplomacy and calm: her confidence appeared to be of the quiet kind. ‘Changing the scene in Egypt’, as the press has described her project, doesn’t have to mean shouting from the rooftops.
Sara’s home, in a reflection of her image, was beautiful, neat and cool – a relief, given the Red Sea summer temperatures outside (that made the South of France seem lukewarm at best). We set up for the shoot in the spacious, bright, rooftop kitchen. Sara had a cookery book in the pipeline to illustrate, and as photographer, I intended to produce images that would crossover between corporate portraits and lifestyle photography.
A persuasive case for vegetarianism
It didn’t take long after my arrival with assistant Alia (a talented young photographer who attended my Red Sea photographer workshops) for the kitchen to look somewhat less spacious. In addition to stands, reflectors and lighting equipment (thank you to photographer friend Zeyad for the loan of items that would’ve been difficult to transport from France), we spread fresh produce across all available surfaces: heaven for a food photographer. Peppers, mangoes, peaches, tomatoes, beans and aubergines spilled in all directions…it was a colourful sight indeed.
Sara was a delight to work with, and our all-female, fun team (including two superb cooks) worked smoothly through the styling and shooting of a range of pictures. Sara declares herself ‘not quite vegan‘ (she can’t, understandably, resist the temptation to eat cheese when she returns to her home country), but I can’t imagine a more persuasive case for vegetarianism at the very least, than the lunch we shared. Raw food spring rolls with a divine peanut sauce, flavoursome veggie curry and a startlingly good salad and hummus, washed down with a rich hibiscus juice, would’ve been enough to convert any sceptic to eating organic. It certainly made for one happy photographer…